Thoughts on To Save Everything, Click Here (and Higher Education)

Audrey beat me to reviewing Morozov’s latest book, and as is often the case when Audrey digs deep into something, there isn’t a whole lot left to say. I encourage people to read her exhaustive analysis.

To me, the book ended up being a systematic treatment of an issue that I have been struggling with for a number of years now, ever since getting a bit freaked out at an ed-tech roundtable I participated in Spring of 2009, during which I remember Jeff Jarvis exhorting us to “shut down the prisons” — by which he (a fairly wealthy individual with resources to home-school) apparently meant we should scrap the entire K-12 enterprise and replace it with some — oh, who knows what. Probably a search box and a packed lunch.

It struck me in that moment how many functions of public school Jarvis was blissfully  ignorant of. The child care function that fueled the growing workplace equality of women. The school breakfast and lunch programs that reduced child poverty. The civic education functions, which are not a consumer good, but a public one. The transmission of cultural norms and wisdom to the next generations.The use of schools as centers of community life.

All of these functions, and many more, are expected of our system of public schooling. It’s a system that is a product of democracy, and one that simultaneously expresses multiple competing (and often conflicting) visions of what education is supposed to do. Lawrence Cremin, late in his life, talked about these multiple responsibilities we have pushed into our schooling system (one of the few common collective experiences in our culture). And the conclusion he came to was that school was not broken at all, but was doing exactly what we were expecting of it. On any given single axis (say math scores, child nutrition, cost per student, civic education) we could probably do substantially better. But the gain in one area would be offset in others. If you want to see Exhibit A of this in practice, just look at what a focus on math scores has done to arts education over the past decade. But, hey, math scores are up, just like we requested. Success, right?

The situation is no less complex when we come to higher education. Here the goals are often in direct conflict. Legislators want us to commit (at least in the state system) to success for all. Certain employers, on the other hand, want us to act as a filter, flunking out the weaker potential employees. Students are consumers in one respect (purchasing education) but in questions of assessment look more like the product by which we are judged (what does Anywhere State’s degree actually mean?). Alumni (who are, after all, your former students) want to increase the prestige of their institution, which ultimately involves reducing student access. In this complex web of interdependent functions, what does it mean to “execute your mission”?

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This is where Mozorov’s book shines. What Morozov demonstrates brilliantly is not only are we are often solving problems with inappropriate solutions, but in our rush to find solutions for these problems we are short-circuiting debate on what the problems actually are, and  addressing things as problems that might in fact be features or compromises that make the  system work. According to Morozov, what technocracy brings to the table here is a particularly virulent form of “solutionism”. The solutionist society does not seek merely to improve society, but to fix it. And it is that distinction that which informs much of his book.

***

The metaphor of “fixing society/school/welfare/government/health care” imagines society and its institutions as a sort of machine, built to achieve narrow, predefined, immutable ends. When these ends are not reached, or are achieved at less than desirable levels, that institution is “broken”, and technologists are assigned to fix it. And when the ends are met, and the outputs are up to acceptable levels, the problem is solved. Society is fixed.

Such a vision is antithetical to the vision of a society guided by moral judgement. A moral society makes changes to achieve defined ends, but then engages with the results of those efforts to not only debate new methods for achieving those ends, but often to redefine whether those ends are what we want after all. What we find is that many of the inefficiencies and “bugs” of the system are actually important pieces which help the system function.

The inefficiency of offline communication, for example, made it incredibly difficult to pry into a potential employee’s personal life. Today, through the massive efficiency of Google, we  can find out if candidate Jane Smith has a history spending her weekends drunk and bitching about her work life at the touch of a button. This is all through the effort that Google has expended in “making the world’s information more accessible.” And to the solutionist, if accessibility of information is a good, then turning accessibility up to eleven is a godsend.

Except the world doesn’t work like that. Morozov’s explication of this brings to mind Justice Souter’s comments about the Constitution in his commencement speech at Harvard:

[T]he Constitution is no simple contract, not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.

What is true for the Constitution is true for society and technology in general. Dial up accessibility of information and you flush privacy down the toilet. Dial up privacy and you harm accessibility and free exchange of information.

Google will tell you that you’re wrong, that there are no “competing goods”. Privacy, long regarded as a good, they will tell you, is actually an evil. It’s outdated, so suck it up and deal with the new era of openness. The problem, as Morozov deftly points out, is not that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail; but rather that there are some nails left up for a reason.

***

To explain how this applies to education, I want to go deep enough into this to upset people that are normally my allies. Because we need to upset each other a little more.

The one thing we can agree on is that education should cost as little as possible, right?

Except removing cost of attendance as an indisputable good ends up not being simple. One would think that we want education to be “as free as possible.” The word you’ll hear thrown around a lot when “edupreneurs” get together is “marginal cost of zero”. We can use technology at scale to make a college education free — isn’t that a good thing?

How technologists jump from “Education costs too much” as a problem to “Education is not completely free” as a problem is a mystery. But they do. But is the fact that education costs something a problem? Or does the cost of education act, in many cases, as a desired feature of the system?

Whether you agree with the aims or not, paying something for education has effects that many stakeholders desire. Students who pay something for a course are more likely to complete it than students who don’t. This may, on net, be a benefit for both society and the student. We also know that people experience services they pay for differently than services they don’t. Experiences that are paid for are heightened, and attention to those experiences is more focused (and in education, possibly more productive). The fact that a student paid for a course is also an important part of economic signalling to potential employers that a student is serious about entry into a profession. Employers are about to invest in you; the fact that you put money into your education (rather than stayed home and watched YouTube videos for free) is perceived as demonstrating a level of seriousness about the position, and a belief in your own ability to succeed.

Obviously there are many situations where these benefits do not apply. But at least in the context I work in, students derive very real benefits from paying something for education. The problem is not to reduce payment for education as much as possible (ala xMOOCs). The problem is more complex, and involves reducing median levels of student debt while making the amount students pay for college highly dependent on their family’s ability to pay.

And even there, that’s my version of the problem. Whatever we land on in a democracy will likely be a Frankenstein-like combination of my social justice aims with the wildly opposed aims of the “education as meritocracy” crowd.  The fact that neither of our ends are obtained absolutely is not a result of a broken system, but of a functioning democracy.

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I could go on. I probably will over the next few weeks. But I would urge everyone who currently works for an abstract concept such as “openness”, “transparency”, “freedom”, “access”, or any one of a dozen worthwhile goals in education to read this book. I’m not sure if the core work of the people who read this blog will dramatically change as a result of reading this book, but the way you talk about and conceptualize that work might. What you prioritize might. I continue to believe that it is vital that we work to improve our educational system without succumbing to the rhetoric of crisis and plague of technocracy. If nothing else, this book will show you just how important that is.

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The Point Where the Toothpaste Will Not Go Back in the Tube

Back in August last year, I wrote a piece on How MOOCs Could Kill Higher Education. In the scenario presented, the first step was this:

In public education, the problem has the potential to get bad quite quickly. Imagine a legislature that says that the state colleges must provide a path to credit through MOOCs offered by accredited institutions. Suddenly the easy, profitable stuff is gone, and even at existing tuition rates colleges will be bleeding red ink.

I’ve been trying to highlight this with administrators and faculty I talk to who shrug of MOOCs as a fad, and with pundits who roll their eyes at it all. Maybe MOOCs are a fad — but the policy changes they leave in their wake have ramifications we will be living with for decades. We are a set of institutions based on some very weird bundling of high and low-cost services, bundling that only makes sense in the current policy environment. Pull that policy out, and the Jenga tower gets rickety real fast.

Hate to say I told you so, but, well:

Under the proposed plan, wait-listed students would be able to take online classes that have been approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council…. Students would have to take proctored, in-person exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit..the organizations providing the courses would not have to be accredited colleges and universities. They could be MOOCs, or low-cost course providers like StraighterLine, or perhaps a venture led by textbook companies whose offerings increasingly blur the distinction between textbook and course.

This won’t end at wait-listed students. Keep in mind, this is the Democratic version of the plan, by a fairly progressive guy, a former employee rights attorney. The other versions are coming. The other states will begin to jump in. What starts as a plan to help wait-listed students will quickly gain steam as a “solution” to the “higher education crisis.” And due to the particular economics of bundling, it puts the entire architecture of higher education in jeopardy.

And it will likely succeed. It will likely succeed because it aligns the liberal technocracy with the anti-government right. And things that do that almost always succeed.

It’s time to start pitching alternate visions of how this might work, before we get run over by this.

I Have No Idea What That Electrodermal Study Means for Education

This chart, showing electrodermal activity believed to be associated with “cognitive stress” is making the educational blog rounds recently:

engagement

The thing generating interest in the blogs, of course, is the flatlining you’re seeing in the class segment, which lends it to the catchy soundbite that “Lectures produce no more cognitive activity than TV.”

Of course, this is one of the problems of increasing abstraction. Engagement correlates with learning outcomes which correlate with learning. Certain types of engagement correlate with cognitive stress which correlates with certain skin conductance patterns. At this level of abstraction, it’s not particularly useful for education (and indeed, the paper it come from makes zero claims about education — it is instead a demonstration that the device can detect various patterns of conductance over long periods of time, which may help people with seizures). Eventually a well-designed experiment might cut out a number of links in this game of research telephone, and who knows, maybe something will come of it.

If I had to say one thing about it, I’d say the piece that would be most interesting would be the comparison of the reading portion of studying with the lecture directly. There’s a seminal study I can’t find at the moment, a very early learning study from maybe the 1940s? Soldiers were randomly assigned to a group that either saw a film, watched a lecture, or read a manual on how to do some sort of operation with a gun — when the time came to execute the task, the soldiers from the three groups performed identically (Does anybody else remember this study? Help me!).

Anyway, my question is what that sort of experiment would look like with these EDA sensors. My guess is whatever the result, we’d find out there is a lot more subtlety to this data than is initially evident.

Schumpeterian “Creative Destruction” and the Perfection of Market Imperfections

So for reasons not worth going into (OK, Twitter spat), I became interested in whether my understanding of Schumpeter and his Marx-inspired theory of “creative destruction” was wrong. I have a bit of an allergic reaction to the term, which I associate with CEOs shrugging off layoffs as “churn” and taking the Jack Welch position that such actions are just a sign of a company moving forward. I had read Schumpeter before and had fuzzily associated the term with the breakdown of monopoly advantage and extraction of excess profits through rent-seeking. When an article used it as seeming shorthand for Time Inc. “shrinking” I thought, “Aha! Not right! Time still has a ton of monopolistic power – it’s why they can make so much money from decidedly crappy magazines.”

I was mostly wrong in my remembrance. The section of Schumpeter’s book the term “creative destruction” comes from (“Can Capitalism Survive” from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy) does indeed deal primarily with monopoly advantage, but the application of creative destruction is not limited to that section. In fact, creative destruction isn’t really limited at all. Schumpeter calls it the “perennial gale” that blows through every element of capitalism. To Schumpeter, it makes as little sense to say “the media industry is undergoing creative destruction” as it does to say “Bruce Willis is undergoing gravity” – creative destruction never stops, and effects all industries equally all the time. Sometimes the effects are more evident, but the toaster industry is living with creative destruction as much as Time Warner.

But in short, I was wrong. The traditional media can be seen as being affected by “Schumpeterian Creative Destruction” (although they can’t be seen as going through it – there is no ‘through’).

Still, I’m glad the Twitter exchange happened, because it gave me a chance to re-read the monopoly power section of the work, and to see why that was the most salient aspect of the work for me. The reason is simple – it’s a great read, and well worth your time. The basic idea is that the so-called “market imperfections” of capitalism are not actually imperfections, but instead crucial to how the market produces progress. In fact, Schumpeter, in a weird move for a Marxist, argues that attempts to remove these market imperfections would lead to a less effective capitalism. Here’s some notes on the argument he makes:

Market distortion is essential to investment. In a market with perfect competition, who would want to invest? In a perfect market, the price you can charge for a product comes so close to its cost that investment is not worth the return. For this reason, capitalism needs monopolistic practice. Monopolies rarely exist in absolute terms, but rent-seeking and associated behaviors are the norm. My ability to wage an advertising campaign against an upstart competitor is a small form of monopolistic power. The fact that it is hard for people to get their data out of my online service is a small form of monopolistic power.

The reason investors invest is in hope of monopoly-like advantages. The price of GOOG or APPL is based on the idea that they will be able to charge marginally more for their products than they cost to make because of advantages that make competition imperfect – that’s where profit comes from. Those advantages include patents, copyright, “mindshare”, ability to take on debt, exclusive contracts with suppliers and distributors, user lock-in:

Similarly, if a patent cannot be secured or would not, if secured, effectively protect, other means may have to be used in order to justify the investment. Among them are a price policy that will make it possible to write off more quickly than would otherwise be rational, or additional investment in order to provide excess capacity to be used only for aggression or defense. Again, if long-period contracts cannot be entered into in advance, other means may have to be devised in order to tie prospective customers to the investing firm.

So the point of investment (according to Schumpeter) is to accrue monopoly-like advantages. It’s not necessary to see this as greedy behavior – it is only through securing excess value in good times that a corporation can survive periods of difficulty. In other words, the ability to distort the market slightly is crucial to long-term survival of firms:

On the other hand, enterprise would in most cases be impossible if it were not known from the outset that exceptionally favorable situations are likely to arise which if exploited by price, quality and quantity manipulation will produce profits adequate to tide over exceptionally unfavorable situations provided these are similarly managed. Again this requires strategy that in the short run is often restrictive. In the majority of successful cases this strategy just manages to serve its purpose. In some cases, however, it is so successful as to yield profits far above what is necessary in order to induce the corresponding investment. These cases then provide the baits that lure capital on to untried trails.

Again, the main point here is that these minor distortions of perfect competition are not a malfunction of capitalism, but the lynchpin that hold the whole thing together.

If all capital seeks out situations where monopolistic practice is possible, how is such steady productivity of capitalist economies possible? This is really the primary question for Schumpeter, I think. He spends a long portion of the book outlining the steady increase in productivity of capitalist economies, and notes that productivity increases primarily benefit the masses:

It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.

To a Marxist like Schumpeter, this is a serious problem. If Capitalism improves life for the poor in predictable ways, then perhaps socialism is unnecessary. But it is also a great puzzle – if Capitalism is primarily a monopoly-seeking then how can it lead to productivity gains at all? The answer, as we are seeing, is that capitalism succeeds because of its so-called imperfections.

Monopolies aren’t necessarily bad. Whirlwind ride, but again, these are just notes. Schumpeter first says the term monopoly is overapplied, but also misapplied as a derisive term. Long-run monopolies, says Schumpeter, can only survive by not acting like monopolies. As soon as they use too much of their monopoly power, they open up opportunities for those wishing for a piece of the market (or for governments wishing to destroy them). Additionally, monopolies have some social benefits. A monopoly can attract the best intellects and maximize their influence. Their better financial standing provides stability to those using their services.

(Interestingly, I see some of the logic Robert Bork would advance in his dismantling of anti-trust law).

Perfectly free entry into a new field paradoxically prevents entry into that field. Again, we know this stuff from things like patent debates, but I think its formulation here is interesting:

But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all. The introduction of new methods of production and new commodities is hardly conceivable with perfect—and perfectly prompt—competition from the start. And this means that the bulk of what we call economic progress is incompatible with it. As a matter of fact, perfect competition is and always has been temporarily suspended whenever anything new is being introduced—automatically or by measures devised for the purpose—even in otherwise perfectly competitive conditions.

Innovation takes investment. If there’s no potential for market distortion – if the market immediately sucks profit out of the enterprise or doesn’t allow for future extraction of excess profit, then why enter the market? Paradoxically, investors looking to enter new fields do not want to enter fields which have low barriers to entry.

The pivot to socialism is that the “striking” success of Capitalism is not because of free competition, but because competition is made imperfect:

So I’m wondering how a socialist like Schumpeter is going to get from “Hey, all these problems with capitalism are not actually problems” to “Socialism is the way to go.” It comes towards the end:

In this respect, perfect competition is not only impossible but inferior, and has no title to being set up as a model of ideal efficiency. It is hence a mistake to base the theory of government regulation of industry on the principle that big business should be made to work as the respective industry would work in perfect competition. And socialists should rely for their criticisms on the virtues of a socialist economy rather than on those of the competitive model.

In other words, if you are a government interventionist of any sort, then it’s important to understand the social benefits of monopolistic behavior.

Anyway, that’s the section. Again, worth a read if you (like me) have a day off and a warm spot to read in.

 

I’m Changing Jobs

I’ve leaked this out on Twitter, Facebook, and in personal conversations, but I’ve put off writing a blog post about it because I find it very hard to do justice to the people I’ve worked with at Keene State in a goodbye. So let me just say that despite crushing state cuts, constant friction, and a thousand other barriers that present themselves daily, the people I’ve worked with here at Keene State do amazing things. I am going to miss their optimism, humor, and grace under pressure. I’m going to miss their dedication to students, and their valuing of teaching as the core of the college experience. Mostly, I’m just going to miss *them*: there is no other way to say it.

In the quick but brutal pivot one is forced to do in these posts, I now must tell you how excited I am to have accepted a position as Director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University at Vancouver. This gives me an opportunity to work with favorite (and brilliant) ex-colleague of mine who left Keene State to become Chancellor of that institution, as well as a host of others I met on a recent journey there.

The job will allow me to explore my passion — how different elements of digital and net-mediated learning can be used to improve a traditional campus-based education. Part of the job of the position is to connect WSU Vancouver into the discussions that are happening on these topics, so my relative absence from conference events on open education and net-mediated learning is likely to change, at least a bit. My colleagues reading this might see me a bit more (which is good, although I have never quite mastered the jet-lagged surreal experience of conferences — now’s the time I guess).

But yeah, a big part of this job (compared to my current one) is making connections that can help WSU Vancouver. So if you have a project you want to partner on, if you have a panel for which I might be a good fit, if you are interested in coming to WSU Vancouver and showing what you are doing, if you’d like me to talk to you at some point about what we’re doing  — these sort of larger strategic areas are ones I will need to move into, and I guess the time to talk to me is now, while we are still spec’ing out what we might like to accomplish in the next year or two. I firmly believe that the only way our institutions are going to confront our current challenges is to find ways to work together, and if that means a bit more jet lag and sticky-bun psychosis, I’m ready to pay that price. If you are reading this blog and working on something good that you think WSU Vancouver might like to be part of (research, initiatives, experiments, grants, or events), shoot me an email (caulfield.mike at gmail) and we’ll talk.

(And if, by chance, you work at WSU Vancouver and are reading this, I’d like to talk to you most of all. Come by my office in VDEN, second floor, near the Vice Chancellor.  I start there March 25, and want to know about all the cool things you are doing or would like to do…)

An Institution Is Not an Invention: Heretical Thoughts on Mitra

So a funny thing I never realized before last Sunday — Sugata Mitra, the informal learning darling of the hour, was part of the NIIT team that did a leveraged buyout of the company I worked for in 2003. And NIIT still owns it. That’s interesting, since what Cognitive Arts does (or at least used to do) for NIIT would considered “Highly Invasive Education” to Mitra — well structured, scaffolded simulations focusing relentlessly on threshold concepts, designed by learning experts for hundred of thousands of dollars a pop.

Apparently when you’re selling services to businesses that measure ROI, you don’t just give them a closet and a laptop and see what happens.

But let’s put that aside for the moment. Here’s what’s bothering me presently in Mitra’s speech:

But first, a bit of history: to keep the world’s military-industrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system. It worked. Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

Audrey Watters has an amazing post on a very similar passage from Mitra’s initial talk. Like Audrey, I’m going to quote a lengthy segment here, because it’s a pretty stunning passage:

They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.

Mitra’s got a bad case of straw man disease here, but the most striking thing about his exposition is that he seems to believe our educational system was invented a specific time to solve a well-defined, identifiable problem: the production of clerical workers. And further, Mitra asserts that this need for Victorian clerks is in fact the reason the school exists as it does today.

This is crazy. And I contend it’s crazy for you to listen to a man who thinks this way.

First, a public institution is not an electric can opener. No one person sat down and said, hey let’s design an educational solution to Problem X from scratch.

Second, public institutions are not static. Institutions evolve constantly based on the desires and needs of the communities they serve.

There are reasons that education looks the way it does today. Real reasons. You may disagree with those reasons, but it makes no sense to say the reason is the system was designed for a particular need of a particular country 150 years ago.

Take math. Even in the Victorian and Edwardian ages teaching rudimentary math represented much more than a single goal. Many people argued for its utility in life, and certainly it was helpful in the sciences, but the most common explanation I’ve found in old textbooks is not Mitra’s mythical desire for better trained clerks, but the belief that doing math problems leads to greater mental capacity with other things in life that might matter to you.

math

From Mental culture, published 1840.

I’m not a math historian, but a quick scan through Google Books search will show you how this concept evolves. Famously, Thorndike and James execute their great transfer experiments at the turn of the century, and debunk the “mind as muscle” hypothesis.  Eating math because it was good for you is no longer a valid reason.

By the 1940’s math had evolved as a way to give students insight into the world around them, and spark their curiosity. Here’s Paul Mort, from his 1946 book “A Look at Our Schools“:

The patterns of practice in the modern school are similar for other phases of skill and subject teaching —lifelikeness and reality on the one hand, expansion and proliferation of the skills and subjects which are taught on the other, coupled with scientific knowledge of the problems involved. Arithmetic consciousness is built early in a youngster’s life, not by drilling him immediately on processes of addition and subtraction, but by acquainting him first with real situations in which addition and subtraction are used. This means that first-grade children will spend more time playing counting games, measuring the width and breadth of the room in which they live, estimating the sizes and differences in dimension of blocks and other objects, weighing themselves and recording gains in weight, measuring their height in inches and recording the difference in height between John and Alice—learning, in other words, to think in quantitative terms about the world around them. This means also that your son may not start formally to add columns of figures as soon as you did when you went to school. But by the time he reaches the third or fourth grade he will not only be doing as well as you did then (if he is as natively smart as you are), but he will also have a much sounder understanding of what adding and subtracting of figures is all about. Numerous experiments have shown that this is true.

So drill is out, at least for the younger kids, in favor of stuff that looks a lot like the stuff Mitra is proposing — tasks in which teachers try to get child-citizens to take an interest in the world around them by any means possible while still providing a basis for disciplinary knowledge. Ravitch, in her article The Educational Pendulum details just how far this pendulum swung:

After World War II, this kind of progressivism came to be known as “life-­adjustment education” and became a major force in American education. Principals boasted that their programs adjusted students to the demands of real life, freeing them from dry academic studies. The new curriculums centered around vocation, leisure activities, health, personal concerns, and community problems. The schools in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, offered a course called “Developing an Effective Personality,” while junior high-school students in Tulsa learned what shade of nail polish to wear and how to improve their appearance. Some schools had no curriculum at all, while others pointed with pride to new courses in which projects or activities such as running a barbershop or decorating the girls’ washroom replaced traditional studies.

A backlash forms against this approach, Sputnik goes up in the 1950s and suddenly it’s a more discipline-oriented focus, with gifted and talented programs to seek out the future engineers that will protect us from the Evil Empire and a grade school curriculum that puts students on a track for high school calculus. In the 60s and 70s the experimentation veers to what “open education” originally meant — student designed syllabi, classrooms without walls, decentered power structures, interest-based curricula. The Sudbury Schools and Summerhill become icons of the age. Math becomes a neglected subject. Then, in the late 70s, the U.S. starts facing global competition just as a backlash forms against anti-authoritarian culture, and bang — we enter the era of the international benchmarks and a college prep curriculum.

Does this mean that every school became Summerhill in the 1960s? That Clinton-era testing wiped out all art programs? No. For every radical example to be found there were hundreds of schools for which the spirit of the age was more a shift in focus than a radical redesign. Most schools incorporated a mix of progressive and conservative ideas, and it was the mix that shifted over time. But far from being unresponsive to the ages the schools found themselves in, I think you could make an argument, ala Ravitch, that schools were actually hyper-responsive to the times they found themselves, often to the neglect of focused incremental improvement.

Keep in mind that I am not the one that decided to argue this question on historical grounds: that was Mitra. He urges us to destroy a system that he has not made the slightest effort to understand. He sees math added at a particular time in educational history, makes some broad claims about why that might be, and associates the utility of math in the current curriculum with a series of decisions made by thousands of individual administrators nearly two centuries ago. He pays not a whit of attention to anything that has happened since. He ignores the fact that the ideas he proposes have actually been tried repeatedly throughout history, and instead embraces the techno-reductive claim that the affordances of new technology (not ideology) is driving the new possibilities he displays.

The history Mitra narrates is this. There once was a race of Victorians. They built a can opener called education, and nobody has changed that can opener since, even though we no longer eat from cans. But we no longer eat from cans! Give me a million dollars, please.

And they do! Words fail.